Jean-Paul Riopelle, CC, painter (born 7 October 1923 in Montréal, QC; died 12 March 2002 in Isle-aux-Grues, QC). One of the original signatories, along with Paul-Émile Borduas, of the Refus Global, Jean-Paul Riopelle was one of the first Canadian artists to gain major international recognition. A Companion of the Order of Canada and a Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec, Riopelle represented Canada at the 1962 Venice Biennale, and received a large retrospective at the Musée National d’Art, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1981 (the show eventually travelled to Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal). His work is featured in museum collections in the National Gallery of Canada, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC.

Early Life and Education

The son of a builder who liked to be called “bourgeois,” Riopelle began taking drawing lessons with Henri Bisson when he was about 13. Bisson was his French and mathematics teacher at the school Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague in Montréal and gave painting lessons on weekends. His motto was “to copy nature.” Riopelle’s Nature bien morte (1942) is a copy of one of the Bisson’s paintings; Hibou premier (1939) was inspiredby a stuffed animal in Bisson’s hunting collection.

Riopelle’s parents, however, dreamed of a different career for their son. Not that of a painter. They wanted him to follow in his father’s footsteps, to go beyond even, and become an architect. In 1941 and 1942, he studied at the École polytechnique, Montréal, but without success. He finally ended up at the École du meuble in 1942.

The painter Paul-Émile Borduas was teaching at the École du meuble and had Riopelle as a student. Riopelle rebelled against Borduas at first because Borduas didn’t appreciate his ability to make “realistic” paintings in the manner he had learned from Bisson. Riopelle has remarked that he was the “provocateur” in Borduas’s classes, but he slowly opened himself to a freer, more spontaneous style of painting.

The Birth of Automatism

Riopelle began experimenting with Marcel Barbeau, Jean-Paul Mousseau and Bernard Morisset in a makeshift studio (it was a shed that Barbeau rented, behind a house on rue Saint-Hubert, in Montréal) and produced what could be described as his first automatist paintings. Painted with commercial house paint on jute for lack of money for better materials, little of this work has survived.

By 1947, Riopelle had produced a sufficient number of works that qualify as “automatist” that his style could be fully appreciated. This body of work can be grouped into two categories: watercolors with web-like black lines interwoven over masses of color suggesting successive layers of depth, and oil paintings of extremely heavy consistency in which controlled randomness allows for the appearance of an unconscious, interior landscape or what the French surrealist artists called an “inscape.”

The painting he exhibited at Véhémences confrontées in 1950, a show organized by the art critic Michel Tapié and the painter Georges Matthieu at the Galerie Nina Dausset in Paris, was inspired by a Jackson Pollock painting Tapié described as “amorphique,” meaning formless or purely material. The description fit Riopelle’s painting better than Pollock’s. In a text accompanying the exhibition, Riopelle claimed that only “total chance” could open his painting to new discoveries. He then expressed the desire to detach himself from the automatists, though his paintings and technique remained faithful to the idea of complete spontaneity.

The Paris Years

In the 1950s, Riopelle developed his well-known, mature style of creating large, colour mosaic paintings executed with a palette knife and by squeezing colours onto the canvas directly from the tube. One such painting, Blue Night (1953),was included in Younger European Painters, an exhibition organized in 1953 by James Johnson Sweeney at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Shortly thereafter, Riopelle signed on with the Pierre Matisse Gallery (owned by the son of the great French artist Henri Matisse), which was devoted to French avant-garde artists in New York. Important New York art critics like Frank O’Hara, a poet and renowned curator at the Museum of Modern Art, recognized Riopelle’s importance and compared him to Jackson Pollock. In Paris, Riopelle was close to a number of American expatriate painters, among them Sam Francis, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life. It is in this context that he met Joan Mitchell, with whom he had a stormy relationship that lasted 25 years. Both of them resisted the trend prevalent in the French avant-garde of the time to follow Picasso, and instead became interested in Monet’s immense paintings of his floating gardens in Giverny, near Paris.

Throughout the 1960s, Mitchell and Riopelle maintained separate homes and studios near Giverny. The French art critics of the time coined the term nuagisme (from nuage, French for cloud) to describe Sam Francis, Joan Mitchell and Riopelle’s paintings, suggesting that they were less interested in form than in the diffuse effects of colour.

The Return to Canada

In 1970, Riopelle exhibited a plaster version of his monumental sculpture, La Joute (or The Joust), at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. The model was cast in bronze in Italy in 1974, and two years later installed at the Olympic Stadium in Montréal. It was subsequently installed at the Place Riopelle in the heart of Montréal’s commercial district. Over time, Riopelle visited Canada more and more frequently, first to hunt but also to paint. It was only in 1989 that he returned to Quebec definitively. His fascination with animals gave birth to numerous engravings that constitute a highly original bestiary, as well as many depictions of Canadian geese. He had a studio at Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson (from 1974), at l’Estérel (from 1990), and finally at l’Isle-aux-Oies (1994–2002).

During his final period, Riopelle had ceased using palette knives but used spray cans instead, often spraying over objects set on the canvas. The public had difficulty understanding his late style, but when he painted his huge Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg shortly after hearing about the death of Joan Mitchell in 1992, it was impossible to deny that Riopelle had mastered a new technique inspired by urban graffiti. The Hommage might be described as a coded message about his life with Mitchell. He purportedly liked to call her Rosa Malheur, a play on words on the famous animal painter Rosa Bonheur. What fascinated Riopelle about Rosa Luxemburg, on the other hand, is the fact that the great communist leader used to send coded letters to her partisans when she was in prison. The painting in three sections is now in the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

When Riopelle died 12 March 2002 at Isle-aux-Grues, a state funeral was organized in his honour. It can be said without exaggeration that he was the best internationally known Canadian painter of his era, his work represented in all the great museums of the world. His paintings from the 1950s still sell for in excess of a million dollars. Great retrospectives of his work — such as that which coincided with the opening of the Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in December of 1991 — attract thousands of visitors. The publication of his Catalogue raisonné, in four volumes, under the direction of his daughter Yseult Riopelle, is also an unequivocal sign of his enduring importance.